Designing problem-based activities

A complex real-world problem is an essential component of Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and ‘content’ or knowledge is introduced through the context of the authentic problem and its resolution. In PBL the problem is usually expressed in the form of a scenario to establish the activity with the students.

In the Active Learning Classroom, students work on the problem in small groups. First, they must identify what they know, what they don’t know and what they must learn to solve a problem.

The benefits of using Problem-Based Learning

Nilson (2010, p. 190) lists learning outcomes associated with PBL. A well-design PBL project provides students with the opportunity to develop skills related to:

  • Working in teams.
  • Managing projects and holding leadership roles.
  • Oral and written communication.
  • Self-awareness and evaluation of group processes.
  • Working independently.
  • Critical thinking and analysis.
  • Explaining concepts.
  • Self-directed learning.
  • Applying course content to real world examples.
  • Researching and information literacy.
  • Problem-solving across disciplines.

Creating a good problem scenario

Good problem scenarios are authentic and ill-structured and require students to go beyond their textbooks to pursue deep knowledge. Well-formed scenarios feel real, containing realistic situations and settings, key players, consequences, and problem statements that require student analysis and further research.

Design good problems for the students to work with: make them real, realisable, open-ended, in need of discussion and problem-solving strategies. Make it clear that real world ‘problems’ and discussions have multiple possible ‘right’ answers and that students need to work together imaginatively. Learning happens by working out solutions, not by having the right solution.

“PBL is a student-centered, inquiry-based instructional model in which learners engage with an authentic, ill-structured problem that requires further research (Jonassen & Hung, 2008). Students identify gaps in their knowledge, conduct research, and apply their learning to develop solutions and present their findings (Barrows, 1996). Through collaboration and inquiry, students can cultivate problem-solving (Norman & Schmidt, 1992), metacognitive skills (Gijbels et al., 2005), engagement in learning (Dochy et al., 2003), and intrinsic motivation.”


In active learning, problems can be small puzzles that form the basis of meaningful activities in which problem statements can be discussed and resolved. Such small activities can help groups and individuals identify knowledge gaps and strengths. From this, they can develop strategies for developing their knowledge and skills.

Six Steps to designing a problem-based approach

Step One: Identify intended learning outcomes – answer, what will your student know and be able to do?

Step Two: Design the Scenario – design a scenario with an embedded problem that is a real, complex issue related to your course content. Scenarios should be motivating, interesting, and generate good discussion. Create a scenario that will challenge different types of thinking, and elicit discussion, research, and learning that needs to take place to meet the learning outcomes.

Step Three: Introduce PBL – PBL is likely to be new to your students. Explain it and develop their confidence by allowing them to practice with an “easy problem,”

Step Four: Research and enquiry – PBL research begins with small-group brainstorming sessions in which students:

  • Examine, clarify and define the problem;
  • Explore what they already know about the problem;
  • identify what they don’t know yet and what they need to learn more about (topics to research);
  • Determine what they need to learn and where they can find and acquire the information and tools necessary to solve the problem.
  • Evaluate possible ways to solve the problem.
  • Solve the problem.

Groups should,

  • write the problem as a statement or research question;
  • use group roles and assign responsibility for researching topics necessary for them to fully understand their problems;
  • develop an initial hypothesis to “test” as they research a solution and revise this as necessary.

Step Five: Product Performance – using their knowledge and research data, the students should create products and presentations.

Step Six: Evaluation – the students, or peer groups, should evaluate their products or performances. Rubrics can be used to support this and to aid group reflection on what they have done.

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